I always thought that leaders should appreciate their teams speaking up about their work challenges since it is a drive for organisational improvement and hence innovation. However, research shows that voicing problems may cost employees career progression and a pay raise if they do not do it right.
Why speaking up is not enough?
In his book Originals, Adam Grant, Wharton’s top- rated professor, breaks many assumptions about innovation. One of them is about career success factors.
It turns out that being vocal about problems at work can impede your career progress. Prof Grant discusses the results of an interesting study by Prof Scott Seibert, Prof Maria Kraimer and Prof Mike Crant who looked at 180 full time professionals over 2 years.
The researchers found that speaking up and encouraging others to get involved in the issues that affect the group, negatively predicted salary raises and promotions.
Prof Seibert and his colleagues explain that although talking about problems is important, perhaps managers expect employees not only speak out the issues but also propose possible solutions. Voicing problems without offering solutions can be perceived as not taking the responsibility and an expectation for someone else to solve the problem.
Interestingly, innovation efforts, such as coming up with new ideas, were found to positively influence career success.
Favourites vs non-favourites team members
On the other side, managers should be aware about other factors that influence how voice and innovation efforts are evaluated. I asked middle level managers from a pharmaceutical industry how they evaluate new ideas and suggestions of their “favourites” vs “not favourites” employees.
The results indicate that managers’ initial reactions and behaviours differ extensively depending on the quality of the relationship with a subordinate. Managers would invest more time in listening, giving feedback, and helping to implement their favourites’ ideas (Martinaityte & Sacramento, 2012).
However, in a low quality relationships case, managers expressed that they put little effort in coaching followers and helping with idea development and implementation. Not surprisingly under such conditions even the best voices and ideas might never leave your line manager’s office.
What can team leaders do?
Since spotting and communicating issues is a drive for organisational improvements and change, team leaders could use coaching techniques to encourage team members not only speak up but also take ownership of the observed problem and propose possible solutions.
Instead of punishing voice with less pay and career progression, managers could use this as a learning and development opportunity for their vocal team members.
Finally, managers should be aware of their behaviours with most and least favourite team members. Research showed that it is easier to listen to, improve and help to implement new ideas at work if they come from someone you have a good relationship. Valuing everyone’s voice and creating opportunities for all team members to be heard will help to not miss out innovation opportunities.
Creativity Researcher and Educator
Lecturer at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia
Sebert, S.E., Kraimer, M., Crant, J.M. (2001). What do proactive people do? A longitudinal model linking proactive personality and career success. Personnel Psychology. 54.
Martinaityte, I. and Sacramento, C. A. (2013). When creativity enhances sales effectiveness: The moderating role of leader–member exchange. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 34: 974–994.
Grant, A. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Penguin: NY.